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Commentary

Mike Ricci: Public service remains a noble calling — but we could make it better

Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff, Amelia Chasse, and director of communications, Michael Ricci, leave a bipartisan summit about infrastructure at Government House on April 23, 2021. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

By Michael Ricci

The writer is the outgoing communications director for outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan. He was recently named a spring 2023 fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.

Public service remains a noble calling. It is singularly gratifying — if at times grueling — work that offers the opportunity to make a difference and represent the people. I did it for nearly 18 years, and felt the same sense of anticipation and possibility every day.

Yet, even with competitive salaries and first-rate benefits, getting good people to work or advance in government — and stay beyond grass-is-greener private sector offers — has become harder and harder.

We certainly can to some extent attribute this to Trump, his corrosive effect on politics, and the way he has lowered the bar to the point many are expected to be little more than Twitter jockeys. But look around locally too — the Montgomery County Planning Board, Charles County commissioners, the Baltimore City Council and their pensions — and it is one drama after another. The work of solving problems takes a back seat to grudges and personal slights.

Setting aside the need for everyone to just take a breath now and then, one thing that’s clear is we need to widen the circle of potential practitioners, so that government genuinely attracts people from all walks of life.

Last year, Governor Hogan took a big swing at credentialism by removing the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state jobs, and other states have followed suit. Governor Moore’s plan for a “service year” after high school presents a profound opportunity to recruit more young people directly into public service.

For my part, I am proud that we brought communicators into the Hogan administration from disparate fields — education, journalism, and data visualization, among others. Candidates don’t have to be just people who worked for other politicians. There should be more crossover on teams across government.

While there is no shortage of internship opportunities through academia, there could be more agility in this space — for instance, more direct mentoring and immersion programs. Consider what students could glean — and the future practitioners we could recruit — from observing the last days of the legislative session up close, sitting in on an emergency management tabletop exercise, or shadowing a major public event. There could be immense benefits to getting them hooked on that experience.

Public service needs to be better professionalized, too. A recent survey of civil servants in 45 countries found that only about a third are satisfied with their training options. We recently announced a partnership with the Baltimore Cyber Range to deliver cybersecurity training for state employees — an excellent public-private model for what governments at every level can do. Deploy real digital training to combat misinformation. Learn what procurement is and what it entails. Study project planning. Establish workgroups with counterparts in other jurisdictions and states — in other words, formalize the kind of crowdsourcing we were doing during COVID.

More fundamentally, we need to take better care of ourselves and one another. During the pandemic, one of our agency spokespeople left not long after a cyberbullying incident. The whole thing sickens me to this day. Our administration advanced the MyMDCares initiative to step up mental health support for state employees, and I hope more will take advantage of these vital resources.

Public service is not easy living, and it was never meant to be. That doesn’t mean we need to burn ourselves out or treat each other like punching bags all the time. We could all make do with less ego and more humanity. Do your job with joy, and the rest takes care of itself.

These things alone won’t restore our discourse or abate the rampant tribalism. That said, with a concerted effort, we can clear out some of the cynicism, and make room for more respect and decency in day-to-day governance. We can reaffirm that this is still the arena where people stand tall and serve with grace.